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How is Veganism Affecting Agricultural Industries?

27 February 2020

Trends in diets which cut out meat and dairy have been on the rise in the last few years. Are these changes significant enough to affect the meat and dairy industries in the Eastern Cape? And is it only the meat and dairy industries which are affected? What about overall food security?

Veganism is a diet that is mainly driven by ethical concerns and animal rights activism, but also sometimes by health issues, and the diet cuts out meat and all other animal products. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, cuts out meat, but, depending on the individual, retains dairy and egg.


In the UK, farmers have raised concerns as the amount of people practising the vegan diet has grown from 1% to 5% of the UK population. Some of these farmers believe that vegan activists are portraying an unfair and inaccurate view of the UK dairy industry. 

Warnings over obesity, cancer and the effect of cattle on the environment go further to decrease the demand for red meat in the UK as well. However, when put in to context, the impending Brexit – an issue which we, in South Africa, are not faced with – has an equally large part to play in the beef industry’s woes in the UK. This factor skews the data to a certain extent.

In addressing the health issues that have been put in the spotlight through the vegan lifestyle, Bristol-based nutritional therapist Anna Mapson says, “Vegetarians tend to eat less saturated fats and more fibre contained in pulses and beans, whole grains and vegetables. Even if you don't want to become fully vegetarian then adding more fibre into your diet can help address some of the health issues with eating meat."

South Africa

Veganism is known to be extremely popular in the UK and in Australia, but South Africa also ranks in the top 25 nations where veganism is most popular, even surpassing France, Italy and Brazil. More so, it is currently at its peak here. 

Google Trends creates data according to the keywords being searched on its search engine, Google. Their statistics show the Western Cape and Eastern Cape to have the highest number of vegans and people interested in veganism in South Africa. Port Elizabeth is in the top 5 regions featured.

Anna Jordan, director of the South African Vegan Society, has confirmed a definite increase in the demand for vegan products over the last few years, and the retailers who stand out the most in responding to this demand are Woolworths and Checkers.

Case Study: Knepp Estate, West Sussex, England

Isabella Tree is the author of Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm and co-owner of Knepp Castle Estate, which she runs with her conservationist husband Charlie Burrell. 

In her article for The Guardian, If you want to save the world, veganism isn’t the answer, she tells the story of how she and her husband turned their failing farm into a profitable business and how what she discovered along the way detailed certain flaws in the ethics and repercussions of the vegan lifestyle.

She cited the primary reason behind the vegan diet to be a reaction to the intensive meat and dairy industries, which was exposed to have negative impacts on animal and human health, and the wider environment. Her solution for these issues was not to call for plant-based diets, but rather to make use of grazing and browsing animals. Here in South Africa, the closest comparison might be the nature of free-range and organic animals.

Tree said that we would do better to encourage sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing, as opposed to eating more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains. 

In a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2015, it is revealed that owing chiefly to ploughing and intensive cropping, 25 to 40 billion tonnes of topsoil are lost to erosion per year, globally. Herbivores’ interactions with the environment sustain and promote life, so using them as part of the farming cycle can go a long way towards making agriculture sustainable.

The difference these changes made to her arable and dairy farm was significant. The farm went from having almost-dead soil to having 19 types of earthworm and 23 types of dung beetle, both of which contribute greatly to the ecosystem. The effect of the way that the free-roaming livestock grazes, puddles and tramples in the pasture stimulates the soil and vegetation in various ways, and their manure (when pasture-fed) is vital in the process of soil restoration. 

Another big plus which she noted regarding the animals was that since they lived outside all year round with plenty to eat, they did not require supplementary feeding and rarely needed to see the vet. The natural grazing also produced meat which was healthier for us to eat than that of grain-fed animals.

The Bottom-line 

What is rarely considered by those attempting the vegan lifestyle is the carbon cost of ploughing.

Tree explains, “So there’s a huge responsibility here: unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, ‘no-dig’ systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.”

Tammy Fry, Durban-based Director of Fry’s Family Foods, is in the same camp as Tree, as they both emphasise the need to reduce the amount of meat we eat. They both also acknowledge the long-term issues resulting from high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of grain-fed meat production. 

Nevertheless, simply giving up meat and dairy will not put an end to problems concerning the environment, animal welfare and our own health. But with the growing concerns about food security and sustainable agriculture, a small diet change such as the ‘meat-free Monday’ movement – a pledge for one meat-free day a week – can make a world of difference to provide for future generations in the long run while mitigating some of the issues around veganism and its effect on agriculture.